Sat Sep 23 00:28:52 CAT 2017

Identifying strongly with his tribe robs Zuma of being full-time SA president

By Prince Mashele | 2017-09-11 14:14:55.0

The motto "Unity in Diversity" is a profound representation of the complexity of the South African nation in the making.

The idea of nationhood expresses the sense of belonging felt by an individual within a group. In other words, the individual sees and accepts the group as an embodiment of his or her own identity.

In this sense, nationhood is a melting pot that converts individuals from their atomistic state into a national whole distinct from others elsewhere.

To say "other wholes elsewhere" is to render the concept of nationhood territorial - meaning that geographic space (and the uniqueness of its natural attributes) is an essential part of the constitution of a nation. Thus mountains, rivers, animals and other natural phenomena have come to define the character of nations.

It is possible for people to occupy the same territory without feeling a common sense of belonging, or feeling and believing that they belong to different nations.

The slogan "Unity in Diversity" does not express the simple reality of a nation composed of diverse individuals. The diverse colours on our national flag don't represent individuals but sub-national groups that ought to subordinate themselves to a bigger South African nation.

We say "ought" because the mere existence of a country's constitution cannot force sub-national groups to feel a bigger sense of national belonging.

There are relics of the past who still harbour a racist and exclusionary sense of being South African. There are even black people who see themselves primarily as Vendas, Mpondos or Zulus. For such people, the idea of being South African is a woolly concept in the heads of deluded city dwellers.

In short, the concept of an SA nation is an ideal that seeks to forge diverse streams of identity to flow in the same direction, hoping that the streams will eventually become tributaries that merge into a big river of South African identity.

In our current stage of national development, all the identity groups that constitute the tenuous SA "nation" feel very strongly about their sub-national identities.

We tend to think that Afrikaners are overly conservative when they form associations to defend their language and culture. This observation is subjective and masks our very own conservatism. Touch the Zulu king if you think Afrikaners are ultra-conservative.

Even as our national flag projects and articulates the diversity of our sub-national identities, the tacit ideal is for a bigger South African identity finally to crystallise.

The process of moulding such an overarching national identity will depend on the consciousness and political dexterity of our national leadership.

Even as he did not necessarily disown his tribal roots, Nelson Mandela comported and projected himself as a truly South African leader. To this day, Zulus are as proud of Mandela as are Sothos, Shangaans, and so on.

Under Mandela, most of us felt a sense of movement towards a new nationhood. He was not only conscious of the need to nudge all of us in this direction; he was skilful at it.

While making it plain that he was an African leader to Westerners who sought to appropriate him, Mandela instructed his designer to make shirts that do not resemble a single tribe. We all saw ourselves in Mandela's shirts. Our collective sense of South Africanness was stronger under him.

The opposite of Mandela is President Jacob Zuma. As he was rising to the top, Zuma allowed his tribalistic backers to market him as a "100% Zulu Boy". Thus it was clear to non-Zulus that Zuma had no pretensions to be their president.

When he got to the Union Buildings, Zuma conducted himself as a part-time South African and a full-time Zulu. Not only did he frequently project his sub-national Zulu identity; he always ran to KwaZulu-Natal whenever he was embroiled in a scandal.

Addressing his people in isiZulu, Zuma always speaks of enemies who are working for his downfall. The enemies are presumably not Zulu. They are "other" people.

Under Zuma, the "new" SA nation has fragmented back into separate tribal kraals. Vendas are more Venda today than they were under Mandela. And so are Afrikaners.

Our greatest national challenge is to find a president, not a tribal leader. We need someone who will say "Unity in Diversity", while redirecting our sub-national streams of identity towards a great national river called South Africa.